A Brief Look Back: Virgil Hawkins

Posted by Mike

Back in 1949, an African-American applied for admission to the University of Florida Law School. At the time all public schools and public colleges and universities throughout the South were segregated – African-Americans attended black-only schools and colleges, and other peoples, mainly Caucasians, attended white-only schools and colleges. There were no exceptions in public education. Virgil Hawkins was denied entrance to the UF Law School, not on his qualifications, but because of his race. He sought recourse through legal action and continued to be denied relief through the Florida courts. The decision by the United States Supreme Court in Brown versus Board of Education (Brown) on May 17, 1954, changed everything. I should say that it began to change everything, because much of white public opinion continued to support segregation and the state courts often found ways to thwart and subvert the decisions rendered in Brown.

Key conclusions in the Brown opinion were the following:  A. “Where a State has undertaken to provide an opportunity for an education in its public schools, such an opportunity is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” B. “Segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race deprives children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities, even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors may be equal.” C. “The ‘separate but equal’ doctrine…has no place in the field of public education.” Gradually, by fits and starts and confrontations and conflict, public elementary and high schools began to be integrated, but not state institutions of higher learning in the state of Florida.

Mr. Hawkins continued to seek admission to the U. F. Law School, was denied, and continued to seek relief through the state courts. By the mid-1950’s the United States Supreme Court was involved and had given its second opinion on the case, an opinion that was somewhat qualified, stating that “providing there was no reason for delay of admission of [Mr. Hawkins] to graduate professional school… he was entitled to prompt admission under rules and regulations applicable to other qualified candidates.” However, the Court went on to say that its order “did not deprive the Florida Supreme Court of its traditional power to exercise sound judicial discretion as to date of issuance of its process in order to prevent a serious public mischief,” And that therefore Mr. Hawkins was not entitled to an immediate admission, “without a consideration by the court as to whether the facts required such admission.”  The Supreme Court said, basically, that you must admit Mr. Hawkins, but you are allowed to review the case to determine if Mr. Hawkins could be admitted “without doing great public mischief.”

The Florida Supreme Court did review the case on the motion of the claimant Mr. Hawkins and came to their next decision in Virgil Hawkins versus Board of Control on March 8, 1957. The motion was denied, the court having deemed that his admission could not be accomplished “without doing great public mischief.”  Four justices concurred with the decision. Two justices dissented.  On what basis was this decision made?

One of the main issues addressed was state’s rights, and there was in the decision a recounting of multiple recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court that had chipped away at state sovereignty, including the Court’s holding local statutes invalid which required the segregation of races in public transportation. And the state court concluded that the Supreme Court had not intended “to deprive the highest court of an independent sovereign state of one of its traditional powers…the right to exercise a sound judicial discretion as to the date of the issuance of its process in order to prevent a serious public mischief.” So the court saw among its duties the maintenance of the public peace. The court then recounted Mr. Hawkins’ failures to present himself at hearings and to accept alternative law school placements.  But the main thrust of the court’s argument lay on the results of a questionnaire administered to students and parents of white students in high schools and at the University.

The conclusions from the findings of the questionnaire were that 41 percent of white University of Florida students would withdraw from the school, that 62 percent of parents of white high school graduates would find other college placements for their sons and daughters, and that 52 percent of alumni would stop supporting the school! The court also found that they were led “inevitably to the conclusion that violence in the university communities and a critical disruption of the university system would occur if Negro students are permitted to enter the state white universities at this time,” that allowing Mr. Hawkins to enter the Law School “would result in great public mischief.” The court appeared to leave a crack open in the door (especially given the U.S. Supreme Court’s striking down of the “separate but equal” doctrine), ending its decision by indicating that Mr. Hawkins was free to petition the court again, “when he is prepared to present testimony showing that his admission can be accomplished without doing great public mischief.” It wasn’t much of a crack.

To their credit, two justices dissented to the majority opinion. Justice Thomas reminded the readers that the Florida court had denied Mr. Hawkins admission to the state law school back in 1949, but that the Board of Control (which managed the state universities) had offered to send him to law school outside of the state, and that later the Board had begun the establishment of a law school at Florida A&M University (the all black state university). Mr. Justice Thomas referred to the language in Brown that allowed some discretion regarding implementation of the ruling to state and local officials “to permit some delay in meeting and solving problems” and referred to the expression in the Brown ruling – “in the light of…conditions that now prevail” – that indicated social conditions were changing and therefore changes in the law were required. He stated unequivocally that the Florida Supreme Court could not prevaricate, that “the time has arrived to obey the mandate of the higher court…regardless of our lack of sympathy with the holding.” The second justice who dissented, Justice Drew, stated succinctly, “It is a fundamental truth that justice delayed is justice denied. This case has now reached the point where further delay will be tantamount to a denial of a constitutional right” of Mr. Hawkins.

Ultimately, the Florida court had six rulings over time on the Hawkins case. Just a year after the above decision, in 1958, Mr. Hawkins withdrew his application to the Florida law school. Soon after his withdrawal, the law school admitted its first black student. There was no mass exodus of white students at the University, no withdrawal of alumni support, and no riots. Unfortunately for Hawkins, his personal trials were not over. He did complete law school in Boston, but was later denied the right to take the Florida bar exam due a technicality. In 1976, the Florida Supreme Court finally admitted Mr. Hawkins to the Florida Bar. He was almost 70 years old. Later, he had some unfortunate reversals and lost his membership in the Bar. Before he died of a stroke in 1988, he is quoted as saying, “I know what I did. I integrated the [law] schools in Florida.” Eight months after his death the Florida Supreme Court restored him posthumously to membership in the Florida Bar.


“We must remember that any oppression, any injustice, any hatred, is a wedge designed to attack our civilization.”   –  Franklin Roosevelt

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  –  M. L. King, Jr.


1 Comment

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One response to “A Brief Look Back: Virgil Hawkins

  1. John

    Dear Mike:
    Read this and enjoyed your effort. This is a curious side story and your style is very appropriate. Was wondering if you might have meant procrastinate instead of prevaricate. Also, would like some elaboration re: “…unfortunate reversals..”
    I remember being in the UF law school study area on one occasion and hearing the male students shuffling their feet whenever a female, law student or not, entered. That would have been about 1958.
    My sense of your effort was that you were sympathetic to Hawkins’ struggle and saw his plight and fight as equivalent to, say, Rosa Parks’ story. Do you think Dawkins was truly satisfied having to substitute a legal career for having a place in history? Was he helped in his fight in the courts? Was he a cause “celeb” in his time? Do you think the long process of deliberation over the years by the courts showed a reluctance by the justices morally to undue their own ingrained notions of the status quo of what was right vs. personal reflection re: actual case law?
    Lastly, would you have enjoyed a career as a lawyer? Your essay suggests that, perhaps.
    Again, thanks for your thoughts!

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